Aging Voting Machines Are a Threat to Democracy

It should not be difficult to rally our elected leaders to remedy an eminently fixable problem threatening our democracy: the looming crisis resulting from our nation's outdated voting machines.

September 28, 2015
Old voting machine

Cross-posted on The Huffington Post

There are some political problems that defy easy solutions -- the rise of extreme partisanship, or our broken campaign finance system, for instance. But it should not be difficult to rally our elected leaders to remedy an eminently fixable problem threatening our democracy: the looming crisis resulting from our nation's outdated voting machines.

In the vast majority of states, aging voting machines are approaching the end of their useful lives. To continue to use this equipment past its projected lifespan could be disastrous. After years of wear-and-tear, machine parts like motherboards, memory cards, and touch screens begin to fail. When this happens on Election Day, machines must be taken out of service. Voters can be forced to wait in line -- sometimes for hours -- while repairs are made or machines substituted.

This can only shake confidence in the electoral process, and in worst case scenarios can impact election results. In the 2012 election, according a study by political scientists from Harvard and MIT, between 500,000 and 700,000 votes were lost nationally because of long lines. Absent action to replace or upgrade machines, this problem will only grow worse.

A little history is in order. After the 2000 presidential election debacle, involving "hanging chads" on paper ballots in Florida, Congress passed a law allocating more than $2 billion to the states to replace obsolete voting equipment. By 2006, the vast majority of election jurisdictions had deployed new machines.

Voting system experts agree that most machines purchased since 2000 have a projected lifespan of between 10 and 15 years. Today, 43 states are using systems that will be at least 10 years old in 2016; 14 are using machines that will be at least 15 years old. No one expects a laptop computer to last for 10 years. It is wrong to expect these electronic voting machines, many of which use laptop technology from the 1990s, to last much longer.

For a high-profile example of what can go wrong with antiquated machines consider Virginia's 2014 election. Following reports of machines crashing or registering votes incorrectly, the state Board of Elections commissioned an expert review to look at 27 malfunctioning touch screen machines. In 26 of them, they found the glue holding the touch screens in place had degraded, knocking them out of alignment so votes were not recorded properly. That problem may not be limited to Virginia. The same model of this antiquated machine is still used in 20 states.

Security is another problem with older machines. In a related investigation, looking at a different machine, Virginia investigators found wireless cards that could allow "an external party to access the [machine] and modify the data without notice from a nearby location."

In the years since those machines were purchased, much has been learned about how to design voting systems that are more user friendly and accessible to all. We have developed techniques that can audit the count of paper ballots, to ensure that the software on new machines is correctly tallying votes.

As it is, maintaining the outdated machines used today is often a struggle. As voting systems age, the parts necessary to support them go out of production. Some election officials have to resort to finding parts on eBay.

It is too late for most jurisdictions to acquire new voting machines in time for the 2016 election. But that does not mean there is time to waste. To ensure new machines are in place before 2018 or even 2020, planning and budgeting must begin immediately.

Even in the absence of new machines, there are important steps that states and counties can take in the next several months to reduce failures or minimize their impact on voting next November. Officials should test every voting machine before Election Day to catch problems ahead of time. Training poll workers on how to deal with machine problems is also critical. Poll workers who know what to do in case of machine problems can make the difference between a major Election Day fiasco and a brief delay.

Of course, the fragile state of voting machines is no secret to those election officials who need to replace them. What too many lack is the money to do so.

Congress has a role to play. As it did 13 years ago, Washington should provide an infusion of money to help purchase new machines. But today, few in Congress of either party are talking about this problem. Realistically, given how soon action needs to be taken, states are going to have to provide the majority of funds. At a moment of intense budget pressures, replacing all of the aging machines will not be cheap -- the total cost could easily reach $1 billion nationwide. But even in tough budget times, this is an essential investment. The mechanics of democracy are too important to rely on outdated systems that are increasingly prone to failure.

(Photo: Wikipedia)